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Posted on January 17, 2013 at 4:26 PM

Jennifer Chevinsky, B.S.

On December 16th, a 23 year-old female physiotherapy student was raped by six men on a private bus in New Delhi, India, while returning home from a movie theater. She has recently died, after being transferred in critical condition to a hospital in Singapore. This incident is one of many that has been plaguing India in recent years. It seems natural for us to demonize the six men who perpetrated this crime and to feel safer when they have been caught and prosecuted. However, it is important to also recognize the larger systemic structural violence issues at play if there is to be any hope for resolution and change to prevent such crimes in the future.   

Structural violence refers to the way that social structures and cultural norms perpetuate harm against disadvantaged individuals that prevents them from meeting their basic needs (Galtung 1969). More examples of such structural violence against women in India abound. Until last year, the ‘finger test’ was considered a proper way to examine a female rape victim in order to assess whether she was a virgin or previously accustomed to sexual activity for purposes of rape convictions or suitability for marriage. As for medical practitioners, during a rape exam, they are encouraged to document the attractiveness of the victim’s attire, insinuating the women bear responsibility for “allowing” themselves to be raped.

The thoughts about women in society and perceptions of rape by the government and healthcare system are troubling, further perpetuating the current unfortunate situation. A recent New York Times article reports on the inadequacy of India’s rape laws which define rape as only penetration without consent, unless a couple are married and the woman is over 15 years of age. Sentencing guidelines for judges do not exist. The law dates from 1860 and has only been amended twice.

Perhaps this particular case has outraged the international community because of the extreme brutality of the action or the fact that the victim was a young student. Social justice should not be dependent on aesthetics. We cannot only mourn those portrayed as educated or modestly dressed or innocent as this makes all of us complicit in the selectively unjust treatment of women. This woman is but one of many who have been victimized and who will continue to be victimized if women are not considered equal – an equal partner in marriage, an equal employee in the workplace, an equal student deserving of a full education, and an equal citizen in the sociocultural life of the nation.

As a 23-year-old female medical student, I feel connected to this girl, who remains nameless in the media. I feel connected to all of the other women whose stories remain untold, who have not received proper health care following their rape or have been kept within a system that discourages their growth and flourishing. Furthermore, as a medical student, I would urge that the medical field has a unique responsibility to try to prevent rape when possible, to help those who have been sexually assaulted, and to empower women in places where they are being subjugated.

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